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This British entrepreneur of Indian origin plans to start an airline, and even got funds from UK govt. What gives?

Navdip Singh Judge plans to start Flypop, which will fly from London to Amritsar and Ahmedabad, from late 2021
Nov 12, 2020 / 03:07 PM IST
 
 
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Richard Branson, the Knighted British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, couldn't convince the UK government to lend aid to his regional airline Flybe, which collapsed earlier this year amid COVID-19 pandemic.

But earlier this month, Navdip Singh Judge managed just that. And that too for an airline  - named Flypop - that is yet to start operations. Heck, it doesn't even have an aircraft.

Judge, known as Nino, has secured a funding - an-eight figure sum, the airline told Moneycontrol in a statement later  - from the UK Government's Future Fund, which helps companies, especially start-ups, that have been hit by the pandemic. Companies have to match the government's aid with an equivalent investment from private investors.

But given that the purpose was to fund 'promising' companies, many in the UK, including its media and in business circles, have wondered how an airline could come under that bracket. The aviation sector was among the first to be hit by the pandemic, forcing many airlines to file for bankruptcy. Recovery from the virus too, has been the slowest for airlines.

"It beats me, especially after Branson was denied!" exclaimed a London-based businessman of Indian origin. "Post pandemic, it looks very difficult for a long haul airline, that too a low-cost one, to be financially viable," added the businessman.

Responding to Judge getting aid from the government, daily Telegraph said in a report, "The deal threatens to further inflame tensions between the Government and the cash-strapped aviation industry." It added that aviation companies have been 'begging' the administration for help. But very little has come across.

So who is  Navdip 'Nino' Singh Judge? And what has the British government seen in Flypop that could be promising?

Nino, the man

Judge, going by his bio on the Flypop wesbite, is an aeronautical and astronautical engineer by education. But he is yet to work in an airline.

He has worn many hats. Judge was a bond trader at Lehmann Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. But before and after these stints, the businessman has been linked to motorsports. For many years he was part of the Lotus Formula One, owned by AirAsia Berhad founder Tony Fernandes.

In earlier interviews, Judge has said, it was this stint with Fernandes during which he first started thinking about starting a low-cost airline that will connect London, through the Standsted airport, with Amritsar and Ahmedabad.

He formed Flypop in 2014. Plans were to start operations in 2016, with Airbus A330 aircraft on wet lease. In a wet lease, the aircraft, its crew and maintenance are handled by the lessor.

The fund  - 8.5 million pounds - to start operations, Judge had said, will come from crowdfunding. In an interview to Bloomberg at the time, he declined to share how much has been raised.

Little is known why the airline failed to start services till now.  One of the qualifying criteria for getting the UK government aid was that the business should have already raised 2,50,000 pounds.

While that is hardly enough to start an airline, Judge, who shared details in an interview with Aviation International News, now wants to start flying to Amritsar and Ahmedabad from late 2021.

The timing is curious.

Worldover airlines, including the biggest ones, have cut down on their long haul plans. In India, low cost IndiGo, the largest airline, is still waiting for industry circumstances to improve before committing a schedule to fly to Europe.

Flypop, through its un-bundled services, is not offering something unique. "The most basic one-way flypop fare for travel in a standard 31” seat will be substantially lower than any offered by our competition, and includes one piece of cabin baggage (size and weight specific)," says its website.

"Any extras such as food, in-flight entertainment, hold baggage or extra leg room will be available at extra cost at the time of reservation," it added.

Amritsar and Ahmedabad may be good choices, as much of the traffic from India to London, originates from these two cities. In fact, Air India recently included these two routes in its new-found focus on the British capital.

The bigger question though is - Is Air India making money through these flights? And how will Judge and his Flypop fare better, the funding notwithstanding.
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Nov 12, 2020 03:07 pm

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